Pam Houston’s genre-breaking book takes readers on adventures far and deep within
You could say it was prescient that Pam Houston began writing her latest book on an airplane. But then, the award-winning short-story writer and novelist often writes on airplanes—and when she started writing these vignettes she had no idea they’d morph into a novel.
“I was invited to an evening called ‘Unveiled’ at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison, where a group of us was going to read new, untested work,” said Houston. “I took the assignment so literally that I wrote the first 12 chapters on the plane and in the hotel the night before. After I read, Richard Bausch said, ‘Write 100 of them, and that’s your next book.’”
Since Houston always thinks in numeric divisions of 12, she thought, “Maybe 144…” Then, she began to write some more, and over the next six years the 144 short chapters developed into a genre-breaking novel.
Houston will read from this new book, “Contents May Have Shifted,” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 at Capitola Book Café. After the reading, she’ll answer questions from the audience and sign copies of the book.
When the fictional Pam (a character not unlike the author herself) takes to the friendly skies on far-flung adventures across the world and throughout the U.S., she attempts to leave her emotional baggage behind. Along the way, she’s accompanied by a cast of loyal girlfriends, lovable Irish wolfhounds, and the ghost of a friend from the past. As Pam takes readers on a journey from Aspen to Bhutan, from Louisiana to Laos, she travels from a philandering lover to a boyfriend with baggage of his own. Though by the end of the book Pam still hasn’t settled down, she begins to realize that complex companionship might be just the thing she needs to come home to.
Although Houston is perhaps best known as a master of the short fiction form—with her short stories chosen for the Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories of the Century and the Pushcart Prize—this latest book is her second novel. The story inhabits the category of a novel because it has a narrative arc that thrusts the main character toward a place of illumination by the end of the book, but it does so in a series of artful vignettes that are strung together in a way that makes the meaning come through to the reader more like poetic collage than chronological narrative.
“I often call myself a collagist,” says Houston, who describes her process as paying close attention to the world around her, capturing with notebook and pen the “glimmers” she observes, then placing images and scenes next to one another to create meaning through association or juxtaposition.
“Meaning is made in poetry by association,” Houston explains, adding that this novel owes a lot to her love of poetry. “Not only is the reader invited in to make connections, but images upon images make you feel something by association. We feel it in different places in our bodies than we feel a chronological narrative—and I think it’s a deeper place. I feel like I’m cheating if I tell a story in a straight narrative.”
Besides structure, another way that this literary work breaks genres is by blurring the line between novel, memoir and travelogue. Like Houston’s other works, “Contents May Have Shifted” is based more on Houston’s actual life than invention. The fact that the narrator’s name is Pam is no coincidence. When asked how much of her writing is based on her life, Houston responds, “82 percent.”
“My work sits on the borderline between fiction and non-fiction,” she says, though she views the border not so much as a line, but as a “vast plain or at least a giant meadow.”
Houston studied fiction in graduate school and still claims it as her favorite form, yet she qualifies, “By fiction I don’t mean invention; I mean an artistic tool to tell a story—to shape things, compress things, make them up. That’s why it’s called fiction, yet I write more comfortably from my own experience of the world.”
Perhaps that’s why reading this novel feels like having a conversation with your best friend. Houston’s voice is so intimate, so humorous, and so painfully honest that it’s easy to imagine she’s talking right to you, or at least allowing you to glimpse into her diary. But though Houston says she’s comforted by knowing her readers are there, she doesn’t consciously think of them while writing.
“I don’t believe in the idea of an audience affecting what I write—it comes up out of me,” she explains. “I pay close attention to the world, then I take what the world shows me and try to recreate it on the page.”
Pam Houston will read from “Contents May Have Shifted,” answer questions, and sign copies at 7:30p.m on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola.
Photo: Adam Karsten